BWW Interview: Sona Tatoyan on her Multimedia Theatrical Experience AZAD at the Pico Playhouse

Five performances April 21-23 with Bill Pullman hosting talkback on April 23.

During the darkest of times, surprise discoveries of childhood joy can allow the sunshine in on even the bleakest of situations. And with Ukrainian refugees in the news daily, when I heard about Sona Tatoyan‘s Multimedia Theatrical Experience Azad (“free” in Armenian) which offers “one woman’s magical, multi-generational, healing journey from the Armenian Genocide to the Syrian war,” I decided to speak with her about her creative journey to, as she shares, “find the brightest light from the deepest shadows, while living in an upside-down world.” And we can all understand living in that type of situation given the past two years.

Thank you, Sona for taking the time to speak with me about Azad. Before I ask about the play, please tell me a bit about your cultural background, and is there a certain place in the world you consider to be your home base?

I’m first generation Syrian-Armenian-American. I was born in Baltimore, the first member of my family born in the US – my parents are immigrants from Syria. I spent my summers in Aleppo with my mother’s extended family. I feel acutely that home is many places in the world: Aleppo (a city in Syria), Armenia, and wherever my family is in the US. I understand that I’m a bridge person – the connector between all these places.

Since you wrote and directed the play, can you tell me a bit about its story?

Azad is a kaleidoscopic story within a story within a story, centered on a storyteller’s discovery of her great-great grandfather’s shadow puppets in Aleppo during the Syrian war. I am the storyteller in Azad, yes … but it’s multiple reflections of me. We are all a multitude of experiences and shades.

What can you tell me about the Azad story and how it is told?

Azad is an immersive, magical, theatrical experience, weaving together the classical art of oral Middle Eastern storytelling with centuries-old Anatolian Karagöz shadow puppets and the sounds and smells of Aleppo. The show transports the audience to a Middle Eastern coffee shop with its sounds and smells, where for centuries storytellers (Hakawatis) and Karagöz (a form of pre-cinema playing with shadow and light) shadow puppeteers performed the tales from 1001 Nights. Transcendent, classical Middle Eastern music seamlessly blends with modern surround electronic soundscapes. The result is a multi-sensorial, time traveling exploration of healing – connecting us all to the legacy of a family of storytellers who can transmute trauma into art.


Sona Tatoyan in the rubble of Aleppo, Syria
Photo by Antoine Makdis

Theatre itself has always provided a way to transmute trauma into art, especially during the past two years during lockdown. Was Azad written during that time, or if not, how did you keep your creative juices flowing while the world was shut down?

Azad was written during the summer of 2021. The experience it chronicles happened the winter/spring of 2019 in Aleppo, and shortly thereafter I was invited to give the Hrant Dink lecture at Harvard University fall of 2019 to tell the story. Covid happened and I moved to Armenia in the midst of it. Then war broke out on the indigenous lands of Artsakh and I found myself in another war zone. After seven months I came back to the US and was asked to give a talk about storytelling and healing trauma and my experience of being in Armenia during this time. My exploration of 1001 Nights and its frame story as a story of healing trauma was prevalent in my mind as it was a foundational aspect of a long-gestating project on which I had been working called Three Apples Fell from Heaven. I shared this story with a Persian man I had a deep connection with and we created a cultural event that explored our Middle-Eastern culture, reframing its associations in the West as a place of war, dictatorships, subjugated women into the place that’s rich in centuries old culture. This became the soil in which Azad was birthed.

Do audience members need to know about the history of the Middle East and/or the Armenian Genocide before seeing the play?

Not at all. The show will illuminate those things from a very personal perspective.

Do audience members need to know about the 1001 Nights stories before seeing the play, and are these the stories told with puppetry?

Azad’s journey leads the storyteller to discover 1001 Nights and Scherazad (the bold, brilliant weaver of tales who counters destruction with creation) and catalyzes an epiphany within the frame story of 1001 Nights, which is about how trauma transpires and how it is healed. The show will tell these stories and the oral storytelling is supported and illuminated by the Karagoz puppets. It’s a dialogue between me and the puppets, a quantum collaboration between my great-great grandfather and me.

Since the play includes handmade puppets and ancient magic tricks, is Azad appropriate for children?

The play deals with shadow and light. How trauma is transmuted and healed. It’s definitely suited for students, but its themes may be a little advanced for small children.

Your co-director, Jeremy Boxer, shared, “From the start, we knew we had something special. We knew that we could push the limitations of traditional theatre to a blend of a play and an immersive experience. Using specialized sound, light, and smell to transport audiences, we’ve created a magical experience of storytelling at its finest.” What can you tell me about how this sensory/immersive experience was created?

My extraordinary co-director Jeremy Boxer is a filmmaker and experience designer. When we met last May, I shared my story and he could see the capacity of making this a multi-sensorial experience. It’s just wild that in less than a year of knowing each other, we are at this moment! It’s been magical – has had a life of its own.

How long have you been working with the collaborators on the Azad project, including Ahmed Sayeed (Karagöz puppeteer), KÁRYYN (music and soundscape composer), Dimitris Mahlis (Oud performer), Antoine Makdis (Aleppo producer; Aleppan sounds and footage), Gabrieal Griego (producer), and Garo Kharadjian (associate producer)?

Ahmed Sayeed and I met two years ago. KARYYN is my sister. I had met Dimitris years ago and our paths crossed again for this show. Antoine and I met in Aleppo in 2019 and I was immediately inspired by this extraordinary photographer and storyteller. He’s now started the first cultural production house in Aleppo and we are working together on this and Three Apples Fell from Heaven, a TV series that is the sister/companion project of Azad – which mirrors and echoes the world of Azad. Gabriel came on board serendipitously to produce this iteration of Azad through mutual friends and Garo and I had an immediate connection – his family is also from Aleppo. We realized his father spent his childhood summers at my family’s resort in the mountains of Idlib in Syria. It’s all been wildly magical.

As all theatre should be! I understand there will be a special reception following the Saturday, April 23 performance. What can you tell me about it?

There will be a commemoration of the 107th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on Saturday, April 23rd at 7:30pm, which includes a post-performance Q&A with the artists moderated by actor Bill Pullman, and a reception.

How did Mr. Pullman become involved with the production? Does he have a personal connection to Armenia?

Bill is a dear, longtime friend of mine. He’s been hugely supportive over the last years as I’ve lived through the experiences that created Azad. Our friendship has been full of a lot of artistic conversations and explorations. He has met some other Armenian friends and been keenly interested in the history in our part of the world. Bill’s son Jack is a puppeteer and through him I met Alex Griffin, who I’ll just call The Puppet Man! Alex is devoted to and excited by all things puppets and came on board to shoot footage of the puppetry last August and edit our small trailer of the piece. It’s all been very organic.

Thank you so much for speaking with me about your play Azad. I look forward to being in the audience!

There are five performances of Azad at the Pico Playhouse on Thursday, April 21, at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, Friday, April 22, at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, and Saturday, April 23, at 7:30pm. For performances on Thursday 4/21 and Friday 4/22, tickets are $50 for general seating and $75 for VIP seating. All seats on Saturday, 4/23, are $107 and include the post-show event. Tickets may be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/azad-421-422-423-tickets-302278863217.